A film review by Craig J. Koban

I LOVE YOU, MAN jjj

2009, R, 104 mins.

Peter: Paul Rudd / Sydney: Jason Segel / Zooey: Rashida Jones / Robbie: Andy Samberg / Oz: J.K. Simmons / Joyce: Jane Curtin / Barry: Jon Favreau / Denise: Jaime Pressly / Lou Ferrigno: Himself

Directed by John Hamburg / Written by Hamburg and Larry Levin

Is Paul Rudd the reigning heavyweight cinematic champion of big screen comedies?  

I think so, and something he said in a recent magazine interview perfectly encapsulates why his approach is so thoroughly and refreshingly winning and agreeable: “I’ve always felt like I’m the kind of actor that some people might recognize, but they probably don’t know my name.  I don’t have a big drive to be “the guy.” 

That’s the secret to his success:  Rudd does not engage in camera mugging hysterics to get his point across, nor does he do so to easily get a cheap laugh.  His comedic performances are tightly wound up acts of quiet modulation and timing: he uses his impeccable acerbic wit, a soft-spoken tone, and a wildly intuitive improvisational skill to let the laughs feverously fly throughout the theatre.  What’s makes Rudd so punishingly funny is the way he is able to dial down his efforts by flying skillfully under the radar.  A lot of lesser comedic actors go off of the handle to the point of it being a cringe-inducing endurance test for viewers, but Rudd knows the art of self-discipline and control better than just about any other actor in comedies.  

He never goes out of his way to be "the guy”, which only makes him that much more of a rooting presence. 

As one critic wisely pointed out, he is certainly the “most valuable player” in Judd Apatow’s supporting cast.  Many people often overlook that he got many of the best laughs in those films, playing somewhat a-hole side characters with a penchant for wise-ass snide remarks, as on fine display in films like ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY, THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN and KNOCKED UP.  If one excuses the regrettable hiccup that was his appearance in OVER HER DEAD BODY (a loathingly horrible comedy), then Rudd’s recent track record is enormously stellar.  Last year’s deliciously crude and lewd laughfest, ROLE MODELS, triumphantly gave Rudd a headlining comic gig, and he certainly flew with the material. 

Now comes the wonderfully titled I LOVE YOU, MAN, and whereas Rudd was a five star general at playing loveabe self-loathing and pompous jerks in his previous films, here he refreshingly plays a bit against type.  He plays a character that is one of his most introverted, shy, and painfully awkward: his attempts at being cool only reveal how utterly far away he is of reaching it.  Yet, despite his characters incredibly dweebish personality, he still is an agreeable chap, even though he always comes across as the only person in the room that is not “with it.”  With Rudd at the helm, he makes this walking social embarrassment hysterically funny, whether it be his weak attempts at air guitar, dancing, playing poker, engaging in drinking games, or his frequent failed attempts at shouting out nicknames to his would-be friends, like Dude Von Dudenstein and Totes Magotes.  I mean, you just got to feel for the guy, especially when he shrinks into an emotional ball and feebly asks himself, “Did I just say that?” 

With a low key sincerity - and in pure Apatow-esque fashion - Rudd humanizes Peter, a struggling real estate agent that has managed to alienate just about every male would-be friend he has attempted to bond with all throughout his life.   He has only two really significant relationships: the one with his mother and one with his girlfriend.  His latest is Zooey (the gleaming and cute-as-a-button Rashida Jones), a spunky gal that he has proposed to at the beginning of the film.  Okay, Peter certainly gets strong points for being lucky with the ladies, but on a level of having male hetero-lifemates in his world, he is insanely unskilled.  He knows how to have successfully ties with women, but when it comes to men, he is about as inhibited and amateurish as a pre-pubescent boy. 

Peter is still a loveable geek: he never really takes it to heart that he has no – and I mean no – dudes in his friendship posse.  However, one evening he catches Zooey struggling to defend his lack of male buddies to all her female friends.  Even worse: who is going to be his best man if he has no men in his life?  The only two possible candidates are his gay brother Robbie (Andy Samdberg, very funny in a small role), and his remarkably un-homophobic dad (J.K. Simmons), who admits to both sons that he has only a couple of best friends, one of them being a work friend and the other being Robbie.  Poor ol’ Pete. 

Feeling desperate, especially considering that the nuptials are quickly approaching, Peter asks his very sociable brother for advice.  Robbie rather intuitively observes that Peter needs to go on “man dates”, platonic interactions that cannot in anyway be misconstrued as “romantic dates” (so…after work drinks or light snacks = yes; movies and dinners = no).  Peter does go on a series of straight dates with men, which all end rather uncomfortably (one potential suitor mistakes Peter for being gay, in one of the film’s more telegraphed laughs).  However, just when he is about to give up, he has a chance meeting with Sydney (Jason Segel) where all movie characters have a meet-cute in romantic comedies: at an open house of Lou “The Hulk” Ferrigno’s home that he is trying to sell…and it must be sold…because you don’t want to make home angry. 

Sydney is a polar opposite to Peter: he’s a freewheeling hedonist and a remarkably frank and candid man.  He dresses without any regard to negative comments, lets his dog – named Anwar Sadat, because he looks like the real life man – poop everywhere without cleaning up after him, and lives in a shoddy and messy shack of a cottage near Venice Beach.  His cottage – or "Man Cave", as he lovingly calls it – is decked out with everything that a single man-child should have: a drum and guitar set, an elaborate stereo, a big screen TV, a mini bar, various posters and toys…you name it.  Even more prominent is that Sydney is an adult that still acts like he’s in his late teens, which is what sparks the hetero-attraction to him from Peter.  In Sydney he sees a man not suffocated by unwritten societal norms of how a well-adjusted and responsible thirty something male should act.  Sydney looks at the hypocrisies of the adult male existence: He is a free man that does not allow himself to get pigeonholed in a situation that would negatively affect his uber-cool and throw caution to the wind lifestyle.  Yup…it’s easy to see how the tightly wound up and shy Peter would instantly “fall” for this guy.  Through him Peter reawakens and finds some of the lost luster of is Mandom; he discards his keener sensibilities and begins to have fun again. 

Although I LOVE YOU, MAN is staunchly advertised as a transcending genre bending romantic comedy (a bromance, if you will), it certainly is not the first of its kind, nor does it really reinvent the genre’s wheel.  At a close glance, this film follows every basic routine and perfunctory plot element right out of any man/woman romantic comedy; the only difference is its inclusion of two straight men.  Consider: we have the obligatory “meet cute” between the main characters; their first inevitable "date", which leads to a simmering mutual liking of each other; then we have the equally obligatory musical interlude that shows their budding “romance”, which finally culminates with the predictable set of roadblocks that temporarily hurts their “courtship” via some misunderstanding, alienates them to one another, but, alas, everything works out in the end.  On top of these woefully preordained plot developments, we also regrettably have some scenes involving the usual quota of fart, masturbation, and – sigh – projectile vomiting gags.  Bodily functions should – and need to be – banned from all future comedies.  Enough already. 

However conventional and banal the underlining story is (it goes from point a to b with startling reliability), I LOVE YOU, MAN ultimately works because it is a 104 minutes showcase of Rudd and Segel’s immensely assured comic chops.  Every moment that the pair shares on screen - exchanging witty banter, riffling off of each other, and all while keeping these bros refreshingly human and sweet-matured - keeps the film confidently afloat over top of its rigid formulas.  Rudd, as stated, is able to effortlessly create his bumbling stooge of a man with just the right level of off-kilter ineptness and congeniality (a difficult balancing act), and Segel once again hits another comedic home room here, especially after his brilliant screenplay and acting turn in last year’s best comedy, FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, where he was able to be side-splittingly funny while revealing his inner pain and loneliness.  What’s paramount here is that this dynamic duo of Rudd and Segel is so spot on that it forgives the maddening artificiality of the script.  

Some of the other supporting players as well score big laughs, especially the sexy and funny Jamie Pressley as Zooey’s best friend and her incessantly mean-spirited husband, the always dependably "money" Jon Favreau, who – as he displayed in FOUR CHRISTMASES – shows how well he can play unsympathetic and hate-mongering losers.  Andy Samberg, who was a hoot in HOT ROD, is slyly hilarious playing arguably the most well adjusted character in the film, despite his proclivities for wooing straight married men (“More of a challenge,” in his mind).  Hell, even Lou Ferrigno has an uproarious moment after he has had just enough of Segel’s blabbermouth calling him “The Hulk”. 

I LOVE YOU MAN is a rom-com that is sometimes on autopilot…too much for its own good.  It also plays things a bit too soft and sentimental near the end, especially considering that it really wants to be a subversive send up of the genre on a whole.  No matter, because when Rudd’s mild-mannered keener and Segel’s self-gratifying lug are paired on screen, it’s pure and infectious comic gold.  Beyond its insubstantial and somewhat disposable storyline, I LOVE YOU, MAN is proof positive how finely tuned, earnest, and humanized actors can rise above the mediocrity of the underlining material in order to keep all of the laughs brewing for 90-plus minutes.  This bros-before-hos (but just not on wedding day) flick is certainly easy to fault and criticize, but with giggle-inducing maestros like Rudd and Segel – who know how to adeptly underscore scenes to get the most out of them – I LOVE YOU, MAN is hard not to love.  

The film, thanks to Sydney’s intelligent, off-the-cuff insights, also wisely points out that, if you’re a man, your “best night ever” should not involve watching CHOCOLAT.  'Nuff said.

  H O M E